When elite marathoner Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run 26.2 miles in under two hours, a New Hampshire man shared in the achievement.
Portsmouth-based performance scientist Robby Ketchell worked with Kipchoge and his coaches to plot the route, analyze weather conditions and devise the formation the pace-setting runners would keep around Kipchoge.
“What it came down to was creating those ideal conditions for him to perform in,” Ketchell said.
Even as better training and gear help people run marathons faster, the goal of running 26.2 miles in two hours has remained just out of reach. Kipchoge was one of three runners to make an attempt in May 2017, and finished the 26.2 mile course in 2 hours 25 seconds.
Ketchell was recruited to work on the 2017 attempt, after years as a performance scientist for elite bicycle racing teams. A bicycle racing coach brought Ketchell to the 2019 two-hour marathon attempt.
Since June, Ketchell has spent the better part of his time in Vienna. The city was chosen as the site for the record attempt because of its temperate weather, flat topography and low elevation.
Most of Ketchell’s time was spent finding the ideal 26.2-mile course to help Kipchoge run as fast as possible.
“Really, what I spent my time doing was creating the fastest course in the world,” Ketchell said.
He surveyed 15 iterations of the 26.2-mile course before settling on a course that started in the middle of a bridge over the Danube River. From the height of the bridge, Kipchoge would run back and forth on a flat pedestrian road in a park, making turns at rotaries on either end of the route. Ketchell’s team spray-painted the fastest path through the course.
“The course was just really unique, in that we were able to find the ideal scenario to run really fast,” Ketchell said.
Kipchoge ran behind rotating teams of pace-setters, who kept him running at the pace he needed to finish in under two hours, and blocked the wind so the effort would be easier.
Part of Ketchell’s job was setting the pacers’ formation to minimize the wind resistance Kipchoge would face. The 2017 attempt used a forward-pointing triangle, like a flock of birds, Ketchell said. But this time, the performance scientists used computer modeling to investigate different formations.
“We analyzed hundreds of different iterations of these different configurations of the runners,” Ketchell said, before settling on a V-shape, with the point facing back toward Kipchoge, instead of forward.
After settling on the formation, Ketchell and his team analyzed the flow of air around each runner, and fine-tuned the formation to protect Kipchoge.
On the day of the record attempt, Ketchell woke up around 3 a.m., and was on the course before 3:30 a.m. to make last-minute adjustments to the path painted on the road.
Kipchoge set out at 8:15 a.m. Ketchell watched from a “performance operations center,” relaying real-time data from weather stations he set up along the course to Kipchoge’s coach Patrick Sang, riding a bicycle just behind Kipchoge.
“As we came down to the final seconds, we got excited,” Ketchell said.
The pacers dropped back, and Kipchoge ran alone across the finish line. He finished the 26.2-mile course in 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds.
Working with Kipchoge holds a deeper meaning. Ketchell said he is inspired by Kipchoge’s mantra, “no human is limited.”
Ketchell’s son, Wyatt, has Down syndrome, and Ketchell hopes Wyatt will feel he can achieve anything he works for. Helping Kipchoge achieve a feat once thought impossible holds a personal meaning, he said.
“The impossible is possible. There’s no such thing as personal limits,” Ketchell said.
“It just matters that you continue to try.”